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Drone Technology Helps Locate Orphaned Wells

DEC Partnerships Produce Success in Initial Drone Flights

Check back for updates as the DEC and NYSERDA Drone-Based Initiative takes to the skies in summer 2021.

Protecting New York

To safeguard the environment, public health and safety, DEC is using drone and magnetometer technology to locate orphaned oil and gas wells. Many unplugged old wells have been "orphaned" and may affect ground water, surface water, and soils, and release methane. When found, plugging the wells will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve New York's Climate Act goals.

Drone and Magnetometer Technology

Drones are aerial vehicles piloted from the ground. Fixed wing drones are like airplanes, and they must maintain a certain air speed to generate lift. They can often stay in the air for long periods of time. Like helicopters, multi-rotor drones can take off and land straight up-and-down. This allows multi-rotor drones to be used in areas with many obstacles that need to be avoided. They can hover for extended periods and move slow, if needed.

Simple magnetometers have been around for a long time. You can make one yourself using a small bar magnet and some string. These instruments help with navigation, mineral exploration, and archeology. Metals influence Earth's magnetic field thereby creating a magnetic signature that can be sensed by a magnetometer. To help find orphaned wells, magnetometers and other equipment such as GPS (global positioning system) can be fixed to a drone. As the drone is flown, the well's metal casing can produce a strong magnetic signal, and the GPS can provide location coordinates to direct staff to the well.

A multi-rotor drone hovers in the sky. The drone is carrying a magnetometer below it. Drone pilot is flying a drone using a hand-held controller. The drone is hovering several feet from the ground.

Left: Binghamton University's hybrid-electric drone during field activities. Hybrid drones use a small gas-powered electric generator to power electric motors. These drones have greater flight time and carrying capacity than battery powered drones.
Right: DEC inspector and drone pilot landing a multi-rotor drone.

Locating Wells

The drilling of many orphaned wells occurred before today's state regulations. It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of orphaned wells in New York. Their locations and conditions need to be confirmed. Due to the age and lack of information, these wells can present significant hazards and are often difficult to find. Orphaned wells can be buried, hidden in thick vegetation, and lack identifying features. It is often not easy for an inspector to spot orphaned wells. Since 2015, DEC has explored the application of drone and magnetometer technology to help find these wells. Research shows that drone surveys can be efficient and accurate. DEC anticipates drones will locate more orphaned oil and gas wells. Once located, DEC will conduct well inspections and prioritize wells for plugging based on potential risk to the environment, public health, and safety.

DEC Collaboration with Binghamton University

In 2019, DEC partnered with Binghamton University (BU) to conduct drone flights in Cattaraugus County. Maps and field inspections indicated the presence of orphaned oil and injection wells on a target property. The project's goal was to see if drone and magnetometer technology could help locate orphaned wells. The team confirmed the data collected during the drone flight through field inspections. This project demonstrated that drone-based aerial magnetic surveys can help find orphaned wells. More information can be found in the following publication from the Journal of Applied Geophysics: "Successful application of drone-based aeromagnetic surveys to locate legacy oil and gas wells in Cattaraugus county, New York".

DEC and NYSERDA team members are gathered around a map. Two DEC staff members dressed in hard-hats and flame resistant clothing review a map outisde.

Left: Team members review a map and hold a pre-flight discussion.
Right: DEC staff members review a map with potential orphaned well locations.

Team members are gathered outside. A DEC staff member and pilot is holding a map showing magnetic hotspots that represent potential well locations. DEC staff member and drone pilot is looking at an orphaned well in the woods. The well is in poor condition.

Left: Team members conduct field inspections to confirm orphaned well locations.
Right: DEC drone pilot confirms an orphaned well location.

DEC and NYSERDA Drone-Based Initiative

In 2020, DEC and NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) teamed up to study drone usage for locating orphaned oil and gas wells. With landowner cooperation, DEC and NYSERDA plan to initially fly in five counties with a history of oil or gas exploration:

  • Allegany,
  • Chautauqua,
  • Cattaraugus,
  • Erie, and
  • Oswego.

The DEC and NYSERDA team is currently preparing to begin field operations and plans to take to the skies by mid-summer 2021. Read more about this initiative: "DEC and NYSERDA Announce New Drone-Based Initiative to Fight Climate Change by Finding and Plugging Orphan Oil and Gas Wells".

Landowner Resources

Many landowners share DEC's goal to protect the environment and ensure public health and safety. Landowners play an important role in this project and DEC values their cooperation. As the DEC and NYSERDA drone-based initiative is in its initial stages, flights should begin during Summer 2021.

Own land with known historic oil or gas exploration? Interested in granting DEC permission to fly your property in the future? Then please contact us at:

Learn more about Finding and Identifying Oil and Gas Wells. Have an identified orphaned or abandoned well on your property? Please see the following recommendations: What to do if You Locate an Abandoned Well.